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As a half-involved, half-detached observer I have been watching the continuous rise of religious feeling in Russia over the past two decades.

I have reason to be half-involved – my own cousin has gone deeply religious. So much that she, after having earned a degree in chemistry and biology, has now done a batchelors degree in theology swiftly followed by a masters degree in the same (the atheist in me would much prefer to call these degrees the “so-called” degrees). And over the last years, I have been witnessing her deepening mistrust towards all things associated with, in her eyes, a lack of christian and godly morality. It’s put quite a strain on our relationship, and of course some areas of conversation have become a zone where both of us feel like we tread on eggshells. But this subject continues to fascinate me. Especially since her faith is a heady mix with a parallel belief in astrology, which surely is a “pagan” area – and in any case, not a science after all?

The search for god in Russia is hardly surprising – in its days, communism acted as a form of belief system, faithfully adopted by some and forced onto many other unwilling ones. The collapse of communism, the appallingly shameful and horrible information about the bloody wrongdoings of the past leaders that was finally disclosed in the wake of that collapse, and the extreme economic hardships of the nineties left a vast emptiness in the lives of many and caused them to look for alternatives to run to. Anything went in those days – all things occult flourished, astrology enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) a huge following, whole families crowded before TV screens watching some charlatans waving their hands about on prime time telly promising to “charge up”  water bottles dutifully held by viewers – waiting for all their illnesses being cured overnight.

Then, by the mid-nineties, and after decades of communist suppression, religious community leaders came out of the shadows and all churches started enjoying a revival. And it feels like it’s really taking hold of Russians by now. How much of it is a fashion thing and how much of it a true faith? It is probably a mixture – and this raises some interesting questions. Those people who only two decades ago professed to be atheists could not have been so, and certainly fear of being in trouble for being religious had a big part to play. But are they truly religious now? What makes them so sure of their faith? What makes a person look for god? How many of these people truly think and examine their position, and how many are ready to run for any sort of “shelter” as soon as things are tough?

I am also fascinated by some faith-related problems that my cousin seems to be not seeing at all. For instance, I asked her about the position of orthodox christians on catholics and protestants. Are the latter two supposed to be “deviant faiths” in the eyes of her church? Are they wrong in how they worship and will they go to hell for that? – Don’t laugh, as this is what catholics have surely been taught in the past about protestants, I have heard many references to that. Anyway, my cousin opined that the orthodox church has no agreed position on this. No agreed position!! And no view! How can a church not have a view on this major split between its key branches – apart from calling it “wrong”?

Certainly the current intention of educating younger people in the christian faith is to go out and seek like-minded faithful ones. These groups go on pilgrimages all over Russia, seeking out other people belonging to their sect and establishing contact (my cousin does not belong to mainstream russian orthodox church – they actually disapprove of one another and the followers are not welcome in each other’s places of worship). And perhaps that’s a good thing – it’s their own business how they spend their own free time provided this keeps them out of trouble? But of course they also want to convert young minds to their belief system. The view is that the current levels of morality have sunk so low – the lowest ever in the history of humankind – that there is nowhere left to go but to god. It’s interesting that most generations (since the Romans, I believe) also think that the next generation will bring about the end of the human race due to their total moral decline – so far we are still standing.

I want to finish this essay by briefly turning to the question of “why people might turn to god”. It is really difficult to comprehend why people believe – there are no facts to base one’s faith on, is one problem of many that atheists would point out. But this summer I came across a fanstastic science-fiction novel called “The Roadside Picnic” writted by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in 1971. I was re-reading it again, and one passage struck me as so very relevant to the question that has been puzzling me for so long. Here it is:

“…Man, as opposed to animals, is a creature with an undefinable need for knowledge. But the whole problem with that is that the average man … very easily manages to overcome this need for knowledge. I don’t believe that need even exists. There is a need to understand, and you don’t need knowledge for that. The hypothesis of God, for instance, gives an incomparably absolute opportunity to understand everything and know absolutely nothing. Give man an extremely simplified system of the world and explain every phenomenon away on the basis of that system. An approach like that doesn’t require any knowledge. Just a few memorized formulas pins so-called intuition and so-called common sense.”

 

Copyright 2009 by CuriouslyInspired

 

Yesterday was marked by a number of events that all prompted me to think of science, religion, superstition and atheism.

On the one hand, there was an interiew with David Attenbourough on Breakfast where he was talking about his forthcoming programme on Darwin and Evolution. He made an interesting point which I never really thought about before. 

Every religion has a creation myth – whether this is Australian aborigines, an African tribe, Hindu or Hebrews (with Christianity borrowing on the Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve). However prior to Darwin, there was no natural explanation to nature’s unique richness and diversity on our planet, so there was no alternative, non-supernatural view to uphold. In the grand scheme of mankind’s development, it’s a fairly new theory, and as many things new of course it is going to be opposed by some (or many) religious people, as it threatens the very essence of their perception. Read the rest of this entry »

The rediscovery of the original apparatus and materials from 1950ies experiments to create amino acids – the building blocks of life – reignited the interest in this debate.

Original 1950ies experiments: Stanley Miller originally performed these experiments and managed to create 5 amino acids, which the theory suggests would have formed a “primordial soup” which would have been the basis for proteins and subsequent life creation on the planet. A strand of his work focussed on creating amino acids involving steam. However in the 1950ies it was deemed that the Earth’s early atmosphere was not like that, so the experiment suffered from subsequent obscurity; the kit with his full notes was lost.

Update and enrich the findings: Now that the old experimental kit and detailed notes have been located by Miller’s former student, now Professor Jeffrey Bada, the latter managed to move forwards from the 1950ies experimental results and create 22 amino acids. He argues that ancient volcanoes, similar to existing volcanoes, may well have had the atmospheric conditions that Miller used in his earlier tests. Thus, young planet’s volcanoes and thunderstorms accompanying their many eruptions could have indeed created a “little, local prebiotic factory” of amino acids, in itself was a giant step towards creating life forms of Earth.

Read the full story from the BBC here.

Divine intervention or volcanic sparks? What is particularly fascinating about this debate is that it brings back and updates the discussion about the origins of life on Earth. The scientific explanation is now supported with some fresh experimental evidence on the possibility of creating life without divine intervention – but just involving natural processes on the planet.

To date, this issue has beeb one of the biggest debate points between atheism and religion, alongside the origins of the Universe (Big Bang v God).

What would religious people’s response be on this matter of this experiment, I wonder?

Fantastic! A local council in Birmingham has found a fantastic way to better integrate Muslims into the UK society. Amongst other projects, they chose to allocate government money towards printing dozens of slogan T-shirts with “I love Islam” on them.

The money was made available by the governement to generally help improve Muslim integration and was allocated to various local councils that later chose schemes of their own to invest it in.

What an inspired solution. Surely T-shirts will put everyone’s minds at ease immediately, stop all the worries about UK’s tolerance towards Muslims, and make all Muslims feel right at home. And possibly also somehow resolve any threats of global terrorism.

T-shirt modelling: A bit unclear as to who the intended fashion models of these would be? Council heads perhaps – to demonstrate their full committment to resolving inter-cultural problems?

How about this though. At the root of the current increased tension between UK cultures lie religious tensions aggravated by the fact that UK invaded Iraq following US’s lead.

Surely the solution would be for UK to stop meddling in the Middle East, something Britain has been doing for decades, and withdraw from Iraq and Afganistan? Ah, yes, I keep forgetting that the US-UK invasion has caused a fine mess there so leaving now is not really an option. Hmm. Not an easy one is it folks?

How about this then: Acknowledge that religious intolerance is the critical contributor to the world’s conflicts, and work to solve that – not waste money on T-shirts. Which means: (A) educate kids in a more liberal way, don’t let them be indoctrinated into religion from an early age when they are most susceptible, and let them decide for themselves whether they want to have faith or be atheist; and (B) look into the reasons why fundamentalism is taking a stronger hold in communities at this stage, and work on the root causes.

The current policy of giving money to random hare-brain schemes to promote “better intercultural integration” just feels like a random knee-jerk reaction and shows the British government, and the local authorities, have not got the finger on the pulse. Tell me something I did not know before…

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